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The Wearable Smart Gateway: Revolutionary Wearable Tech for First Responders

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18 Feb 2016CPOL
This white paper examines the background of the Wearable Smart Gateway, and the technologies used to build and operate it.

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Introduction

The Wearable Smart Gateway* (WSG*) is the world’s first wearable communications gateway that allows first responders to securely share multimedia information over wide-area networks in real time.

Developed by Mutualink using Intel® technology, the WSG provides unprecedented command-center and inter-agency access to live situational intelligence–including video, biometric, and environmental data. The capabilities of the WSG significantly enhance operational awareness and reduce response times in fast-moving situations, thereby helping police, SWAT, fire, and medical first-responders overcome the challenges of operational blindness by promoting quick, well-informed decision making.

The WSG is the first device to emerge as a result of the Internet of Public Safety Things* (IoPST*) initiative led by Intel® and Mutualink. The aim of the initiative is to equip the next generation of first-responders with seamlessly interconnected technologies that help save lives. In recognition of the valuable innovation the project brings, the joint initiative has received the 2016 Integrated Justice Information Systems (IJIS) Institute Innovation Award.

This white paper examines the background of the WSG, and the technologies used to build and operate it. At the time of writing, the WSG is in the prototype stage with commercial roll-out expected in 2016. Hence, this paper also explores what lies on the road ahead for the device between now and then. The WSG and its technology in the contexts of the IoPST and the FirstNet* LTE*-broadband network are also discussed.

The WSG* Genesis

Based in Wallingford CT, Mutualink and its founders have more than 20 years experience in the development of communications technologies for the public-safety sector. Mutualink’s IP-based network services are used by organizations ranging from defense and law enforcement to finance and public health. Their existing systems combine rack-based hardware, high-performance software, and industry-standard, end-to-end encryption to facilitate the inter-agency sharing of video, voice, and data.

Image 1

Figure 1: Prototype of the Wearable Smart Gateway* (WSG*) device.

One of the major problems facing emergency services and agencies is communications interoperability—differences in technical standards and protocols make the sharing of key data between agencies complicated and slow. Mutualink has a long history of breaking down these barriers. And taking its cues from the pioneering 19th-century telecommunications work of the Edison Laboratory, the innovation team was inspired to take its technology wearable for the first time. Mutualink worked with Intel and set out to break down communication barriers with a system that would seamlessly and securely join the dots between the many advanced technologies in use by first responders, their command centers, and collaborating agencies.

The result of that collaboration is the WSG, a wearable communications gateway that uses
Wi-Fi*, wired USB, and Bluetooth* to connect devices worn by, held by, or in the near vicinity of, the first responder with the remote command center, via a secure virtual private network (VPN) connection to a server, which can be located in the cloud or locally. From there, the information can be seamlessly shared with any number of cooperating agencies and stakeholders as circumstances require.

First-Responder Input to WSG Design

Mutualink is an established name in the world of first-responder communications, and has earned its position through a deep understanding of the needs and demands of those on the front lines. The business development team at Mutualink includes a number of ex-serving first-responders with decades of field experience to call on when it comes to defining use cases and knowing exactly what works and what does not.

During the ideation stages of the WSG, Intel and Mutualink went a step further and called on serving first-responders to give their detailed input in terms of needs and feature set through a series of in-depth interviews. Internal design and think-tank sessions helped the team refine its approach before moving forward to prototypes. First-responders’ feedback also provided valuable insight into many of the specific needs of the command-post user interface (UI) as well as regarding the overall functionality of the device.

As with any wearable technology, the form-factor of the WSG is all-important, and arguably more so given that it cannot distract from, or in any way obstruct, the vital work of the first-responders it is designed to assist. The decision was made to put the Intel® Edison module at the heart of the WSG, with its high performance, extremely low power consumption, and tiny size making it a good match for the task.

WSG Prototyping Considerations

To take the WSG from concept to prototype, the team at Mutualink started working with the Intel® Edison module, which has native Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and USB connectivity within its small form-factor, even when combined with a battery. The module’s built-in connectivity allows it to connect to a number of devices on the person of the first-responder—such as a camera, heart-rate monitor, audio communications, and so forth—and also to a Wi-Fi network for wide area connectivity.

The Intel® Edison board's main system-on-chip (SoC) is a 22 nm Intel® Atom™ processor Z34XX series that includes two Silvermont microarchitecture cores running at 500 MHz and one Intel® Quark™ core at 100 MHz (for executing the Wind River Viper* real-time operating system (RTOS) ). The SoC has 1 GB RAM integrated on package. There is also 4 GB of embedded multimedia card (eMMC) storage on board, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4, and USB controllers. The board has 70-pin dense connector (Hirose DF40) with USB, SD, UARTs, and GPIOs.

Image 2

Figure 2: Intel® Edison modules are used for a number of WSG prototypes.

At the current time, the WSG is not yet equipped with 4G/LTE* capabilities for independent mobile operation and instead connects to a 4G/LTE network via Wi-Fi tethering to a mobile phone, or to a Wi-Fi hotspot. One of the prototype implementations is designed to attach snugly to an ultra-rugged, FirstNet-ready, Sonim* phone, creating a neat and highly resilient pocket-sized pack. The combined WSG device represents an ergonomic design, and while it can be easily carried in the pocket of a jacket or cargo pants, an even smaller solution is desirable. To this end, the team is also exploring incorporating 4G/LTE connectivity directly within the device.

Minimizing WSG Power

The power demands placed on the WSG are stringent, because it may be used to connect to any number of devices capable of delivering relevant, situational, digital data in any location at any time. Additionally, the first responders require simple at-a-glance status indicators on the device itself. With these demands in mind, battery life is naturally an important consideration to the successful operation of the device in the field, and was a key reason why the low-power Intel® Edison module was selected.

For the battery, the team looked for the best compromise between energy capacity and size in order to ensure easy portability. The majority of WSG prototypes are powered using a 3.7-volt, 1200-mA, lithium ion battery. Depending on use case and circumstances, the WSG can also be built around practically any rechargeable battery—a 6000-mA unit for example—although a tradeoff would need to be made in terms of the added bulk. In early testing, the WSG prototypes remained fully operational for periods of 12 hours or more, which is vital during extended operations when emergency responders do not want to be concerned about whether or not their hardware is charged. Note that charging the WSG is as easy as with any cell phone.

Limitations Uncovered, Workarounds Devised, Prototyping Continues

One limitation of the off-the-shelf Intel® Edison module is that when powered by 3.7 volts, the USB On-the-Go (OTG) port does not deliver power to a connected device. This becomes an issue if the user needs to provide power for an external +5V USB camera, for example. The team devised a workaround that involves connecting an additional step-up USB cable between WSG and the external peripheral.

Image 3

Figure 3: The step-up USB cable workaround shown here enables the USB port to deliver power to a connected device.

As shown in Figure 4, a subsequent WSG prototype used a stack of three Spark Fun* boards: one for the Intel® Edison module, a second for the battery and charging, and the third for I/O functionality.

Image 4

Figure 4: Spark Fun* boards were used in the construction of some WSG prototypes.

Current WSG prototypes are favoring the Intel® Edison module for its compact form factor and out-of-the-box functionality, although the team is working on a solution to the USB power issue with these prototypes. The combination of the need for USB power and the desire to implement on-board 4G LTE connectivity has led the team to seek a custom solution, which is currently in the R&D phase. The team is also in discussions with battery manufacturers to integrate the WSG directly into the battery housing, which would result in a more optimal power/size ratio.

Built for Flexibility of Use

Flexibility and adaptability are at the heart of the thinking behind, and the design of, the WSG. The device and its ecosystem need to be able to evolve as hardware and software change, and as new use cases are presented. Built on the Linux* operating system and programmed using JavaScript*, the WSG software is extensible and open, easily allowing the addition of new capabilities.

Additionally, the WSG is equipped with two LED lights as shown in Figure 5: the red light remains steady as long as the secure connection to the server is maintained, and the yellow light blinks according to the level of data traffic the device is handling. The lights keep the wearer informed regarding the operational status of the device. These LEDs can be programmed to provide any type of visual feedback the first responder or command post deems valuable.

Image 5

Figure 5: Indicator LED lights give users quick feedback on VPN and network traffic statuses.

The Command-Post User Interface

In keeping with the objective for total flexibility, the command-post UI is created from thin, Web-based client code Node.js* within a Web application framework. This allows the client to run on practically any device equipped with a browser, be it a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or an Intel® Compute Stick plugged into any HDMI-equipped monitor. Commanders may need to operate remotely or in transit, or to install a temporary command-post during an operation, and this approach gives them that added flexibility.

Image 6

Figure 6: The WSG command-post user interface is browser-based and modular.

The UI itself is programmed to display whatever data is being sent by the field operative, including streaming video, heart-rate, GPS geolocation, and the status of the agents connected to the network.

Network Agnostic, Security First

In its prototype form, the WSG transmits data by tethering via Wi-Fi to a cell phone using any commercial 4G network or, once available, to the dedicated First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet*) public-safety broadband network, currently being developed for use nationally within the United States. In order to capitalize on the best connection available, the system is designed to work across any network without compromising security.

The WSG is similarly agnostic yet highly secure when it comes to the servers used to relay the data from the uplink to the command center and to other stakeholders within a distrusted peer virtual network. Distributed nodes and on-demand remote application services using private Intel servers and, more recently, with Amazon Web Services* have been utilized. This modular flexibility fully maintains data integrity and has been chosen to allow customers to choose the configuration that best suits their needs and existing resources.

Network Security

System security is paramount, with the reality that the WSG is potentially susceptible to many of the threats that might affect any standard computer system or network, such as distributed denial-of-service attacks and network disruption. In order to prevent spoofing or data eavesdropping by rogue devices, the system uses industry-standard, certificate-based, AES256 authentication of every device on the network.

The team is working to provide optimal security from the hardware-level up. This helps ensure the integrity of data and allows the implementation of advanced malware protection, without any compromise to all-important data-transfer speeds.

The data flow is handled exclusively via end-to-end encrypted VPN tunnels, using open-standards based clients. Mutualink plugins are downloaded to the WSG and the client, and a WSG application on the client establishes the VPN tunnel and handles the authentication.

In addition to being network agnostic, the WSG is similarly flexible when it comes to its server connection. The encrypted VPN tunnel can connect the device to a private server or a public cloud-based server such as Amazon Web Services. Ensuring the integrity of data security is crucial when transmitting over any network, particularly a public one. This is where Mutualink’s years of experience come into play in terms of connecting devices securely across networks using its advanced encryption and VPN technology.

Inter-Agency Sharing

Image 7

Figure 7: The flow of data packets from the WSG (on the left of this image) to the server and command post, and on to remote agencies.

One of the strengths of the flexible, open architecture of the WSG system is its ability to capitalize on the established interoperability of Mutualink’s existing public-safety network and platform to share the command post remotely with any number of collaborating agencies and stakeholders.

The cloud-based system allows dynamic media sharing by any agency with the Mutualink system to any approved stakeholder. The thin, browser-based client makes sharing the command-post UI straightforward on any device including laptops, tablets, and smartphones. In practice, this means that a remote stakeholder in any given scenario needs nothing more than their phone and a Mutualink app to follow every step of an operation as it unfolds, with video, audio, and more data streamed live to their handset.

Redundancy

Key to ensuring the integrity of the WSG system in the extreme situations in which it has been designed to operate is redundancy. Failures can occur at any number of different points within a system: hardware can fail, connections can be dropped, and 4G and Wi-Fi bandwidth access can be compromised as often happens in emergency situations where large numbers of people attempt to use the network simultaneously.

On the server side, the fail-safe redundancy programmed into the system ensures that, should a VPN tunnel fail, the system switches automatically to an alternative secure connection, ensuring a reliable feed to the command post. In terms of redundancy on the ground for the WSG and its locally connected devices, Mutualink is in the process of developing an all-encompassing solution to maintain system integrity in the face of practically any foreseeable network failure.

Introducing Mesh*

Mutualink is a world-leading expert in providing decentralized solutions for data-sharing architecture. In the context of its first-responder client base, this model avoids any one agency being the hub, maintaining a level playing-field for all stakeholders. This same principle of decentralized data flow has been applied at the heart of the WSG architecture on a wearable scale, and the Mesh* technology solution is its logical extension, designed to deliver complete redundancy within the network.

Mesh works by sending data packets via any number of individual devices within the network rather than via a single path. What this means is that, should a device drop from the network for any reason, the data will still find its way to the destination. In practice, this can be applied in a number of ways: for example, a squad of four working in close proximity can use just a single smartphone hotspot to transfer data from each member to the command post.

Any WSG-equipped devices in the environment (such as those detailed in the Internet of Public Safety Things section later in this paper) can also be used to transfer data packets to their destination. The environmental devices could include emergency lights, fire-pull boxes, or light bulbs that can be retrofitted with WSG capabilities including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and 4G connectivity. Essentially, the system will work automatically to find a path for the data through the network, ensuring a high level of redundancy and reliability, while delivering a seamless experience for the users.

WSG is FirstNet* Ready

FirstNet* is a dedicated, public-safety, LTE-broadband network currently in the consultation phase prior to national roll-out across the United States. Developed in response to the final recommendation of the 9/11 Commission for a nationwide network of wireless services solely for first responders, the network specifically avoids the severe impediments of essential communication services previously encountered by first responders, when the capacity of public networks was exceeded.

A number of FirstNet Early Builder projects are already up and running. Among these is the mobile JerseyNet network in New Jersey that is in use and was utilized for the 2015 Papal visit, and the Harris County, Texas, FirstNet project where Mutualink technology is already in use by first responders. The Intel-Mutualink team approached the security of the WSG from the ground up, ensuring the integrity of data and advanced malware protection is there, but engineered to ensure that the speed and efficiency associated with public-safety networks are never compromised.

Field Testing the WSG

The user experience is key to the successful introduction of any new technology, even more so when it comes to wearable tech for first-responders working in fast-moving, high-pressure situations. The last thing they want to worry about is a new piece of kit. Key to ensuring the acceptance and usability of the WSG by first responders is rigorous field-testing. While the WSG remains a prototype-phase device and is not yet available for emergency response use, the Urban Shield event in September 2015 provided an equally—if not more—valuable opportunity to test the system and overall user-experience in a simulated real-life environment, offering the ability to gather feedback on the unique pressures inherent to a real emergency.

Urban Shield is an annual, 48-hour, tactical-training event held in northern California. Teams of first responders from around the globe—primarily SWAT, but also fire and EMS—run through a demanding series of realistic exercises. The event is an opportunity for the teams to work on operational tactics and also serves as a valuable test bed—and awareness tool—for emerging technologies, one of the technologies in this case being the WSG.

Following a research period prior to the event, which included consultation with a team of first responders from Sunnyvale, California, Mutualink produced a number of Intel® Edison module-powered WSG prototypes. These were designed to fit snugly with the FirstNet-enabled phone used to provide the Wi-Fi hotspot 4G connectivity. During the exercises, the WSG streamed live video, heart-rate, and location data to the command post.

Event scenarios included a kidnapping and a bus-bomb, with the SWAT teams responding using paint guns to replace live ammunition. The problem the teams were looking to WSG to solve, was the need for command-center personnel to have more detailed and accurate information about events on the ground during an emergency situation, with the additional data of the WSG helping them coordinate more effectively and improve the overall effectiveness and safety of the teams. While there were certainly important lessons learned as a result of this test, overall the WSG performed as technically intended, providing mission commanders a window onto live situations that they hadn’t had before.

Learning from User Experience

User experience is a key factor in the design of the WSG. The first-responder teams needed to be able to seamlessly integrate devices into their working environment, which, in the case of a wearable, means actually on their person. If the WSG device were in any way obstructive to or a distraction from their work, adoption in the field would be hindered. This means that optimization of form factor, weight, and operational simplicity is imperative.

In terms of form factor, the WSG prototype used at Urban Shield was not equipped with 4G, requiring it to be tethered to a mobile phone (that also needed to be carried by the user) for its network connectivity. The WSG prototype created for the event was specifically designed to be attached to the FirstNet-enabled Sonim* phone. Together, the two units had a form factor approximately double the thickness of the phone alone, and the first-responder teams at Urban Shield reported no objections to carrying the device in addition to the rest of their equipment.

From a technical perspective, the simple and robust operation of the WSG performed to expectations at Urban Shield, with the test providing valuable insight on necessary future improvements. One issue that highlighted the importance of field-testing outside of the lab was the sporadic increase in latency of the video stream, which caused video back to the command post to be out of sync—a potentially serious problem. Mutualink took the findings back to the lab and improved the WSG software to automatically sense when the bandwidth was being throttled and to reduce the frame-rate of the video accordingly. While this made the video less smooth during periods when the available bandwidth was compromised, it allowed the video to remain in sync.

Mutualink is also considering replacing the current Motion JPEG compression with H.264 format video to further improve video performance. Another priority is incorporating 4G LTE connectivity within the device itself to remove the need for cell phone hot-spot tethering.

The Instant Command Center™ Solution

One valuable lesson from the Urban Shield test came from the simple observation that the space demands of the command-center computers called for an extra tent in addition to that used for squad briefings. This separated the squad from the command post, and demanded the installation of additional resources. Minimizing such resource-heavy operations in a fast moving and stressful emergency situation would clearly be of real benefit to the first-responder teams, and added efficiency would help encourage adoption of the technology.

These observations led the WSG team to consider the use of the quad-core Intel® Atom™-powered Intel® Compute Stick to replace bulky tower units as the command center. Using the Intel® Compute Stick to power the command post would deliver a number of clear advantages over bulky towers or even laptops. The Intel® Compute Stick has a form factor considerably smaller than most mobile phones rendering it highly portable, and, in addition, it comes equipped with Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and USB connectivity right out of the box, allowing it to be easily inserted into any network.

With the WSG command-post software installed, the operator would simply have to plug the Intel® Compute Stick into any HDMI-equipped monitor to create an on-the-fly command center in seconds. As a working example, imagine an emergency scenario in a hotel where any room with a TV can be instantly transformed into a command center, providing a level of proximity to the situation that would otherwise be considerably more time- and resource-consuming to achieve.

Image 8

Figure 8: Inside the command-center for testing the WSG at Urban Shield 2015.

Internet of Public Safety Things*

A great deal has been written about the Internet of Things (IoT) and its importance to the connected future, not least by Intel itself. In 2015, an increasing number of concrete applications of the disruptive technologies involved are finding their way into daily life, from smart home devices to supermarket Bluetooth beacons. Intel and Mutualink recognized an opportunity to apply IoT technologies and thinking to the public-safety arena, resulting in the Internet of Public Safety Things (IoPST*) initiative.

The WSG is the first device to emerge as a result of their combined work in the field, and is the herald of additional safety-focused innovations to come. One of the key thoughts is that the technology inside the WSG doesn’t necessarily need to be wearable—it can serve a whole new set of purposes as part of static installations in smart devices.

For example, Mutualink showed a prototype of the smart technology fitted in a fire-pull box on the Intel stand at Maker Faire in New York. Rather than channeling data to a command center, one idea for the fire-pull box hardware is to provide first responders with a dedicated Wi-Fi network—called WiFi911*—that is activated when the alarm is pulled and automatically accessed with a simple password known to emergency services.

Image 9

Figure 9: Intel® Edison module inside a fire-pull box as example of The Internet of Public Safety Things (IoPST*), as shown at Maker Faire New York, 2015.

This neatly sidesteps two of the biggest communications problems first responders encounter in emergency situations: the bandwidth throttling caused by panic, creating overuse of networks that results in patchy or non-existent service, and the inability to use any Wi-Fi networks at any given location because of password protection.

The WiFi911* technology could be fitted to any powered hardware in a location: lightbulbs, for example. Not only can modern low-energy lightbulbs more easily accommodate such hardware additions, but the use of lightbulbs also creates a neat link back to Edison, the original inspiration behind Mutualink’s mission to seamlessly connect people. To this end, Mutualink has already successfully inserted the Intel® Edison module at the heart of the WSG* into a prototype lightbulb.

Award-winning Innovation

As part of their pioneering work on Internet of Public Safety Things initiative, the Mutualink/Intel Corporation/San Mateo Sheriff Office Team received the 2016 Integrated Justice Information Systems (IJIS) Institute Innovation Award. This award recognizes technical innovations that make important contributions to the advancement of integration and interoperability in the areas of justice, public safety, or homeland security. The IJIS Institute committee overwhelmingly endorsed the WSG Urban Shield test project and its results, commending Mutualink and Intel for its excellence in the field of exceptional nominees.

Next Steps

The WSG* is currently still in development with a commercial release planned for 2016. Intel and Mutualink are using this time to refine the design and form factor, to add features such as 4G LTE connectivity and video compression, and to polish and improve the command-center interface.

As with any product destined for such a demanding usage scenario, the WSG will continue to be put through highly rigorous testing prior to any large-scale roll out, at which point its potential to enhance the operational efficiency of first-responder teams across the United States can be realized.

About Mutualink

Mutualink, Inc., has developed an interoperable communications platform that enables community-wide multimedia sharing of radio, voice, text, video, data files, and telephone communications in a secure environment. Mutualink’s system is currently deployed by hundreds of public and private entities worldwide, including homeland security and defense installations, NATO Special Operations Forces, police and fire departments, hospitals, schools, transit authorities, utilities, shopping malls, casinos, and more. Mutualink is a privately-held company headquartered in Wallingford, Conn., with R&D facilities in Westford, Mass., Allen, TX., and Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, and with Defense Services office near Washington, DC. For more information please visit www.mutualink.net.

Additional Resources

Learn more about Mutualink here.

Check out the latest on Urban Shield here.

Intel, the Intel logo, and Intel Atom are trademarks of Intel Corporation in the U.S. and/or other countries.

*Other names and brands may be claimed as the property of others.

Copyright © 2016 Intel Corporation. All rights reserved.

License

This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)

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